The unofficial title of Africa’s richest ethnic group goes to the Bafokeng people of South Africa whose population totals a princely 300,000 subjects. At the last count, they were worth $4 billion. How did that happen, asks our correspondent Pusch Commey, in a global narrative of African poverty and colonial dispossession?
The story goes that the Bafokeng people of South Africa, whose totem is a crocodile with closed jaws, came by its wealth through a dogged determination to own its land. Tracing its ancestry from the 12th century, they occupied the Rustenburg belt of South Africa’s Northwest Province as farmers until European migration interfered with their way of life, and encroached on their existence.
Somewhere during the last millennium, Kgosi (King) Sekete III, who ruled in the early 1700s, became the first in the line of Bafokeng kings, of which the current kgosi, Leruo Molotlegi, is the 15th direct descendant. Sekete III was followed by kings Diale, Ramorwa, Sekete IV, and Thethe. To this day, the Royal Bafokeng Nation (RBN) has retained its unique cultural identity and traditional leadership.
The name Bafokeng means “people of the dew”, or “people of the grass”. Oral tradition suggests that when the Setswana-speaking people settled in the Rustenburg valley, about 150km northwest of Johannesburg, they encountered a heavy dew overnight, signifying that the land would be fertile and hence the community would prosper.
Arguably the most influential king in Bafokeng history was Kgosi August Mokgatle, who reigned from 1834 to 1891. Pooling community resources, he started buying back, from white colonialists, the land the Bafokeng had occupied for centuries but which had been appropriated by colonialists.
Steadily a series of “farms” were purchased that now make up the bulk of what is today the land of the Royal Bafokeng Nation. Young men were sent out to the mines to work and contribute to a fund for these purchases.
In 1925, the world’s largest deposits of the platinum group of metals, such as platinum, rhodium and palladium, were discovered on Bafokeng lands. But that was not the end of the story. Under white rule, mining companies paid a pittance in royalties to the RBN in exchange for the right to mine these metals.
Apartheid South Africa’s 1913 Natives Land Act prevented blacks from owning land outside certain areas which made up just 13% of the country, so German missionaries helped the Bafokeng set up a trust to hold it on behalf of the community, which they were able to fully reclaim at the end of white minority rule in 1994.
During the apartheid era, social engineering had created the Bantustans or black homelands with tinpot dictators, who were stooges of the white regime. One such was the strongman Lucas Mangope of Bophuthatswana.
Mokgwaro George Molotlegi (born 1936, died 1997) was the brother of Kgosi Edward Patrick Lebone Molotlegi, who ruled the Bafokeng from 1988 to 1994. Kgosi Lebone’s opposition to the Bantustans brought him into conflict with Lucas Mangope, who detained the Bafokeng king and harassed him until he was forced to flee to neighbouring Botswana.
Mangope then recognised Mokgwaro George Molotlegi as Kgosi of the Bafokeng. This situation prevailed until 1994, when Mangope was forced out of power as Bophuthatswana reintegrated into South Africa. This enabled Kgosi Lebone to return to Phokeng, the sleepy capital of the Bafokeng kingdom, and to once again lead his people. His return was marked by tumultuous celebrations, but they were short-lived, as Kgosi Lebone died in November 1995.
The would-be kgosi Mokgwaro George Molotlegi returned to his home in the area and remained there until his own death in December 1997. Kgosi Leruo Tshekedi Moletlegi, the 36th recorded monarch of the Bafokeng people, was enthroned in August 2003. His predecessor was his elder brother, King Lebone II. Kgosi Leruo became the 15th member of the current dynasty.